June 27, 2013, by Christina Lee
The Enduring Past
Last Friday the Nottingham Medievalists celebrated the 25th anniversary of our Institute and it was a great opportunity to talk to colleagues and students old and new, but it was especially wonderful to see so many people from outside the university. It is very obvious that medieval matters to many people despite the inaccurate ways in which the word is commonly applied. We were privileged to welcome our PVC for Business Engagement at this event, and this made me think about what kinds of business ‘medieval’ presents in these times of austerity.
Most medievalists start out at university, often because their chosen courses have required them to engage with this previously-unknown period. Those encounters have changed the way they thought about the past, and sometimes changed their lives and made their careers. The most obvious examples of this can be found among writers and who sometimes, writers discovered the period after graduation: one such is Philippa Gregory, whose original academic specialism was 18th C literature, but has had huge success with her accounts of the Cousins’ Wars (the dramatization of The White Queen is currently being broadcast on BBC1). One of her hallmarks is her attention to historical detail and known information: her website provides reading lists by other medieval historians and critics. Other examples are Justin Hill, author of Shieldwall, has a BA in English language and Medieval Literature, and the hugely successful Kevin Crossley – Holland, who is not just an accomplished translator of Old English, which he learned at Oxford University, but continues to work alongside academics in medieval studies. When I attended the recent Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo in Western Michigan I met the author Patricia Bracewell who has just published a book on Emma of Normandy, Shadow on the Crown, and who was researching for the next book in her trilogy. While university courses in medieval subjects may not look like big business on the surface, they inform and influence a significant part of popular culture. There are quite a few ex-academics who have become very successful authors, such as Rebecca Gablé who habitually leads German bestseller rankings. It is clear that authors consult the work of academics and that they translate the often ‘dry’ material published by academics into much more exciting books.
I have already mentioned television, but it is perhaps important to consider that ‘medieval’ takes up a large part of the schedule across channels now, a sign of an enduring fascination with this period. Once again the work of academics often underpins these programmes – even if we are not on screen, we have often been asked to help with queries. I regularly get inquiries from researchers, who depend on academics readily sharing their knowledge with them. Some popular presenters, such as Michael Wood [http://michaelwood.moonfruit.com/] and Ian Mortimer [http://www.ianmortimer.com/], are trained medieval academics, who manage to move in both worlds. We should also not forget that many journalists were trained by medievalists (Including Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye) – and while they may not have always enjoyed the pedantry required for learning the grammar of medieval Englishes, the application of it has stood them in good stead.
Medievalists in Universities today educate a large number of people who are involved in what is called the ‘Heritage Industry’, one of the biggest sectors of British Industry. While the Heritage Industry looks at more than the medieval period, many of the large projects are about the medieval period. For example, one of the large exhibitions this year has been the Viking exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and there will be another, even bigger, event at the British Museum in 2014. Such exhibitions do not only provide employment, but also generate money from visitors.
Aside from providing training and education for some of the most successful areas of British business (which also have the bonus that they generally cannot be outsourced to other places) it is heartening to see that what we are doing is relevant to so many different people outside academia. Just like many other Arts and Humanities subjects the study of the medieval past informs our presence and make our life more interesting. We should remember that our fascination with past societies is usually not with their deficits, but with their literature, music, intellectual milieu, culture and languages, things that made life in the past, however hard this life may have been, worth living. I would like to think that in 800 years what people will remember about our time is not just how we made money, but our intellectual and artistic achievements.